Please be aware that I am discussing Episode VII – The Force Awakens openly in this review post, and that this post is full of spoilers. Please do not read this post if you have not yet seen the movie and care about spoilers.
That said, The Force Awakens has been out for three weeks now, and I have intentionally left some time before posting my spoiler review. But I can wait no longer because I am just too excited to talk openly about the movie, so the following are my reflections on Episode VII. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
To begin, I have heard criticism that the overall plot of The Force Awakens was very similar to that of Episode IV: A New Hope. I found this assessment to be generally true of the plot after the main characters had been introduced. Like in Episode IV, the First Order (formerly the Empire) had built a superweapon capable of destruction on a planetary scale and fired it exactly once to demonstrate its destructive capability. Like Episode IV, the New Republic (formerly the Rebel Alliance) had to beat the timer and destroy the superweapon before it could be fired again. And, like Episode IV, they only just managed to destroy it in time. This overarching plot, preceded by introductions to the new cast of characters, formed the overall framework for the movie.
Other similarities between The Force Awakens and A New Hope abound particulary with the archtypes of the characters, providing ample evidence to support the theory that Episode VII is, to some degree, a remake of Episode IV: The principle Sith Lord had to contend with high-ranking military personnel who seemed to cramp his style, remaining subservient to a shadowy overlord who seemed to be pulling the strings behind the scenes, all while facing inner conflict brought on by family issues. Rey, the heroine of the tale, begins as an obscure nobody on a desert planet just like Luke, and just like Luke gets pulled into the greater galactic conflict purely by happenstance. Like Luke, Rey learns that she is deeply connected to the greater picture, and in doing so discovers a sense of purpose that lifts her out of obscurity. Finn, a storm trooper with a conscience, now plays the role formerly filled by Solo -that of the gutsy, daring, endearingly out-of-control rogue who is in it for himself but whose sense of duty to good people gets the better of him, enlisting him in the fight for the long haul despite his better judgment.
Yes, the similarities abound. But Episode VII was the opening chapter of the next Star Wars trilogy, and while the roots of the new trilogy no doubt intentionally parallel the roots of the original Star Wars saga, what happens from here in the subsequent movies will make all the difference. Besides, Star Wars is a tale of parallels (the exact circumstances of Aniken’s choice to fall to the dark side in the confrontation between Mace Windu and Palpatine parelleling the circumstances of his redemption in the confrontation between Luke and the Emperor come to mind).
It is therefore better to be patient and to think of the individual Star Wars movies in their context as members of trilogies rather than one at a time. So to those who think the story so far has been unoriginal, stay tuned! It is not finished.
I had a chance to voice my thoughts on the character design of Kylo Ren recently in a conversation with Jessie on episode 12 of Passionately Casual Podcast, and much of what I say here with regard to Kylo Ren will be a reiteration of what was said in that conversation, with an added insight or two.
For me, Kylo Ren’s propensity to have temper tantrums, his overly-eager desire to prove that he was strong and that he did not need salvation (particularly from his parents), his rejection of his father, and his fawning over the charred helmet of Vader as the embodiment of his idealism all made his internet reputation as a whining emo crybaby well deserved. No doubt, most of his behavior in the movie was completely adolescent.
The most glaring issue with Kylo Ren was his unmasking, in my opinion, though maybe not in the way that you might think. Vader remained a faceless symbol of the dark side right from the very first movie, and it was his breathing as his trademark and his cold, black, metallic mask that made him an icon antagonist. As a result, the unmasking of Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi was undeniably the most epic Darth Vader moment which, very artfully, was also intentionally anti-climactic to show that the deeply-corrupting power of the dark side had left him. He was simply a weak and wisened old man beneath the intimidating black visage.
In The Force Awakens, however, the unmasking of Kylo Ren happened right up front in an equally anti-climactic way. This decision instantly humanized Kylo Ren (or shall we just call him Ben?) as it did Vader, and it brought his more human issues immediately to the surface. Whereas the conflict in Vader was about the abstract dualism of good vs. evil (“I know there is still good in him”), the conflict in Kylo Ren seems to be more personal and familial (“Son, come home”).
The issue I have with Ren’s unmasking is therefore not what it did to his character (because, admittedly, I love complexity in individual character stories), but because it left us with no symbol of dark side power and corruption in the trilogy –it left us without a strong, committed antagonist. Hopefully as the plot thickens over the next two movies, the true antagonist will emerge. I imagine the role will be filled by Snoke as The First Order’s “Supreme Leader”, but I was unimpressed at the fact that they had already given him a name which seemed to humanize him too much too (compare it with “The Emperor” from the first trilogy). And a goofy name it was!
The Dark Side
Kylo Ren immediately came off as particularly adept at the dark side of the Force as evident in his stopping of the blaster bolt, his ability to push through the pain of a bowcaster bolt to the stomach, and his liberal use of statis, chokes and telekinesis. I was immediately impressed with dark side applications for once that went beyond the typical force lightning and force choke because those uses have come to be somewhat cliché to me.
At first I questioned whether Ren’s skill with the dark side should have showed on Ren’s face as dark side corruption, but a recent conversation with Redna during my stream put me at ease. Redna pointed to Count Dooku and Palpatine before the fight with Mace Windu as examples of adept dark side users who did not show dark side corruption on their faces. So there you go, Redna, I concede and kudos to you! *coughlorejunkiecough*
I was actually reasonably impressed with the character of General Hux who no doubt was aspiring to great power, using The First Order as a vehicle for his ambition. The fiery speech to the sprawling military phalanxes during which he seemed to lose his mind to his passion was no doubt intentionally reminiscent of Hitler, and if the viewer drew a mental parallel with Hitler, I think J.J. Abrams hit his intended mark.
Where the plot will take General Hux over the subsequent movies, I am interested to know. For now, I was very impressed with the subtle rivalry dynamic that had developed between Kylo Ren and General Hux in service to The Supreme Leader (I just can’t bring myself to use the name Snoke). That rivalry seemed to me like a nod to the rivalry that had developed between Vader and Xizor, the Falleen prince of the Black Sun, detailed in the novel Shadows of the Empire which has now fallen unfortunately into disrepute as Star Wars Legends.
Rey is a beautifully-designed character so far, and The Force Awakens was a masterpiece introduction. We know just enough about Rey at the conclusion of the movie to know her quest and the role she will play in the trilogy, but we know little else -and the lack of information leaves me wanting more. She clearly has a destiny that links her mysterious past to her future as a potential savior of the galaxy, and it seems as though it will be beautifully intertwined with a personal story -a quest for family and personal belonging as well as a destiny saving the galaxy. But for now the questions abound: Why was she abandoned on Jakku? And why did so much come to light when she touched Luke’s old lightsaber? Why her, specifically? And why specifically that lightsaber? How did she learn to pilot a starship? What was her connection to Luke? And, most importantly, what is her destiny? The internet is already full of theories.
Star Wars’ return to the use of “practical effects” over CGI could not have been more successful than with the actual engineering masterpiece that was BB-8. A ball droid was a novel concept that might not have been believable at all except that the puppet actually exists and works as seen in the movie! I half expected the puppet to be rickety and fragile given that the head floats magnetically above the ball frame, but it seemed solid enough in the movie. I liked particularly that the droid was capable of the same kind of childlike humor as R2D2, and that BB-8’s unique selection of droid sounds and movements was so expressive.
At first I was not sure what to think of Finn, but the character has grown on me as I have thought it through. By the time Episode VII commences, enough time has passed for the storm troopers to have departed from their clone roots, and it was refreshing to see one finally break from the Imperial-military-style lock-step and struggle with the ethics of killing civilian innocents. Still, Finn’s abrupt and dramatic departure from his presumed lifetime of preparation and service as a faceless storm trooper seemed jarring to me.
As I mentioned above, I believe Finn has taken over Solo’s role as the brash and hapless rogue in the story, and while his sudden break from the First Order left me asking ‘Why now after having been a storm trooper for so long?’, at least his character was consistent in that his sense of ethics was responsible for his decision not to abandon Rey, Solo, Chewbacca and the droids despite having every intention to run away.
I’m not sure what there is to say about Poe Dameron just yet except that I liked his brash, cocky overconfidence which he could easily back up with his skill as a pilot. His charisma and his comfort in his own skin made him an intriguing character I was saddened not to have learned more about. In particular I liked his relishing at the chance to fly a TIE fighter because I am not so sure I would feel that different given the chance to fly one of the Empire/New Order’s most iconic naval spacecraft.
While I believe the character of Kylo Ren would have been better served by remaining masked, I think Phasma should have removed her mask. As an avid Game of Thrones fan, I was admittedly eager to see Gwendoline Christie in Star Wars and I regretted not being able to see her face. That bias aside, I think the character of Captain Phasma could have been better served by being more humanized: Not only would the privilege of remaining optionally helmeted have lent some credence to her higher rank in the storm trooper caste, but I believe it would have strengthened her character given Gwendoline Christie’s propensity for playing dominant, strong, secure and powerful female character roles.
I believe the character of Captain Phasma could also have been uniquely strengthened (an opportunity missed) if she had been the wielder of the Z-6 riot baton instead of FN-2199 in Finn’s first lightsaber fight. (You know, TR-8R… Or are you saying all storm stroopers look alike to you?) Phasma could easily and believably have taken Finn on as his former commanding officer feeling a need to punish him for getting soft and ultimately defecting -and the fight would have strengthened a sense of power and intimidation in her character. Instead, the opportunity was lost and FN-2199, a nameless storm trooper, came away with a more rock-solid identity and even -dare I say it?- the mantle as the successor of Boba Fett’s role as the movie’s most intimidating and adept non-Force combatant. Captain Phasma, in contrast, came away feeling obsure and incomplete as a character.
Already I have expressed my distaste at the choice of a name for the First Order’s Supreme Leader -not only at the fact that he was given a name at all, but also at the fact that the name just seemed so odd (I’m not sure why, but it makes me think of Orko in He Man).
It also seemed demeaning to me that so many in the First Order and in the New Republic seemed to be on a first-name basis with Snoke (I recall Solo referring to him as Snoke too). I think showing Snoke’s face in the holo was a mistake, degrading the mystery as the First Order’s puppetmaster and as Palpatine’s successor, though I was appreciative of the intimidating size of the holo, coupled with the rays of light that shone down from the ceiling behind him and over the holo’s shoulders to light the stage at his feet.
Already because Snoke’s face was shown, however, theories abound. One theory is that he is Aniken reborn, and another is that he is Star Wars Rebels’ Inquisitor character having risen to power.
I will leave it to you to decide. What role Snoke ultimately ends up playing will have to remain a mystery for now, though I think he is off to a weak start trying to fill Palpatine’s shoes.
Despite my criticisms, I think The Force Awakens is still a good start to the new trilogy. I was thankful for the return to practical effects and skillful playwriting instead of the overwhelming use of CGI and terrible dialogue that marred the prequel trilogy. I think some careful consideration and subtle changes could have strengthened the roles and personas of some of the new characters, but I remain hopeful that their characters will be further deepened and better framed in the subsequent movies. Star Wars movies come in trilogies, after all, and the story isn’t finished yet.
Tags: A New Hope BB-8 CGI Chewbacca Darth Vader Episode 12 Episode 4 episode 7 Episode IV Episode VII Finn FN-2199 General Hux He Man Inquisitor Jessie Kylo Ren Luke Orko passionately casual podcast Poe Dameron Practical Effects R2D2 R3dn4 Redna Rey Snoke Solo Superweapon Supreme Leader The FIrst Order the force awakens The New Republic TR-8R Xizor Z-6 Riot Baton